As the host of the “Courage to Lead” interview series, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with many leaders who epitomise empowering leadership.   My conversation with Lee Cooper, Senior lecturer Center for Social Impact University of New South Wales, was no exception. From a challenging academic background to a beacon of leadership in the human service sector.  Lee’s journey is a testament to the power of resilience, trust, and the willingness to learn from every experience.

The Formative Influence of Selfless Service

Lee’s story begins with a powerful example set by his grandfather.  His grandfather’s leadership through his unwavering commitment to caring for his wife with rheumatoid arthritis. This act of selfless service left an indelible mark on Lee.  His grandfather’s example shaped his understanding of what it means to lead with dedication and compassion.

Despite not passing year 12, Lee’s path led him to a fulfilling career in youth work and community development. His reluctance to engage in academic pursuits and fear of exams contrast sharply with his current role as an education academic.  It is a surprising twist that often astonishes those who have known him for a long time.

A Journey of Empowering Leadership and Resilience

My conversation with Lee took us to Horsham, Victoria, where he began his transformative work as a youth outreach worker. There, he faced the challenges of supporting young people grappling with mental illness, addiction, and the justice system. Lee and his team’s innovative programs, such as adventure-based initiatives and all-ages music festivals, were pivotal in empowering these individuals.  A great example of empowering leadership.

Lee’s compassionate approach did not come without heartache. He shared the tragic loss of a young person he worked with, highlighting the delicate balance between empathy and professional distance. His focus on making positive contributions to individuals’ experiences, while respecting their choices and the complexities of their circumstances, is a powerful lesson in leadership.

The Evolution of Empowering Leadership

After Horsham, Lee’s career progression led him to Canteen, the cancer organisation for young people. There, he learned the nuances of managing a team and the state office, including the Northern Territory. He candidly discussed his initial feelings of incompetence and the journey to finding his footing as a leader.  Lee became a great example of empowering leadership.  He was a leader who could empower his team and foster a culture of trust and development.

Lee’s personal struggles and the subsequent downward spiral were a turning point. By seeking support and focusing on self-care, he reversed the spiral.  He created a safer, more authentic workplace environment. His story of vulnerability and growth is a powerful reminder of the importance of self-awareness.  Self awareness is a crucial factor in leadership.

Trust as the Cornerstone of Empowering Leadership

Throughout our discussion, the theme of trust emerged as a cornerstone of empowering leadership. Lee reflected on the importance of maintaining trust, even when past experiences might encourage a leader to become guarded. He shared insights on how mistrust can filter through an organisation.  Alternatively, a position of trust can foster a more positive and empowering environment.

Embracing Education and Critical Thinking

Lee’s decision to pursue higher education later in life, starting with a master’s degree at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), was a pivotal moment. It was a conscious choice to challenge his self-imposed limitations and to add a new dimension to his leadership capabilities. His success in academia, including a second master’s degree in creative intelligence and strategic innovation, is a testament to his determination and intellectual curiosity.

The Impact of Teaching and the Joy of Contributing

Now, as a senior lecturer, Lee finds joy in contributing to the growth of his students and takes pride in the impact he can have on their future. He is a facilitator and teacher of empowering leadership.  His transition from a large organisation to an academic institution has come with its own set of challenges and rewards.   Lee’s curiosity and commitment to finding value in every experience have remained constant.

Conclusion: A Career of Curiosity and Fulfilment

My conversation with Lee Cooper was more than just an interview; it was a journey through the life of a man who has overcome adversity and emerged as a leader who empowers others.

Lee’s story is a powerful reminder that our past does not define us and that with resilience, trust, and a willingness to learn, we can achieve great things. His advice to pursue a career of curiosity and to appreciate the learning opportunities in each role is a valuable lesson for us all.

As I reflect on our discussion, I am reminded of the profound impact that one individual can have on the lives of many. Lee’s growth as a leader, and his passion for teaching are sources of inspiration for anyone looking to make a difference in the world. It’s clear that Lee Cooper’s journey is far from over, and I, for one, am excited to see where his curiosity and leadership will take him next.